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Fear Strikes Out
I must have been quite a card when first I broke into baseball's big league as a Boston Red Sox rookie in 1952. That spring, besides playing good ball, I convulsed the fans with my antics. I was a funny man, a baseball clown, and wherever the Red Sox went, the fans flocked to see me. My repertoire of pantomime and slapstick made me a ripe subject for sports writers and columnists.
Almost everybody except the umpires and the Red Sox thought I was a riot. My wife knew I was sick, yet she was helpless to stop my mad rush towards a mental collapse. The Red Sox couldn't figure out how to handle me. I was a problem child. The umpires, whom I plagued with silly protests over routine decisions, thought I was a pain in the neck.
Lou Boudreau, the Red Sox manager, never knew whether to play me or to keep me on the bench. He liked the way I played ball but not the way I behaved. When he played me I clowned so outrageously that I threatened to make a travesty of the game. When he didn't, I badgered him to distraction. Sometimes I stormed and screamed if I couldn't play, and once I even cried in public like a baby. I mocked my teammates and fought with them and with opposing players. I had the whole club, and indeed, much of the American League, in an uproar. Finally the Red Sox sent me to their Southern Association farm club at Birmingham, Alabama, but I was worse there than I had been in Boston. Then I returned to Boston, where the roof suddenly fell in on me. I went berserk one day, and ended up in a mental institution.
I don't remember any of it. From the moment I walked into the lobby of the Sarasota-Terrace Hotel in Sarasota, Florida, to report to the Red Sox special training camp on the morning of January 15, 1952, until the moment I came to my senses in the violent room of the Westborough State Hospital in Massachusetts the following August, my mind is almost an absolute blank. I do have a clear recollection of the birth of my second daughter, Doreen, in March, but outside of that, there are only a few hazy impressions.
But I pulled out of it. Shock treatments, faith, a wonderful wife, a fine doctor and loyal friends pulled me out of it. I pulled out of it so well that I was sound and healthy by the spring of 1953. I pulled out of it so well that I was named the outstanding sophomore ballplayer in the American League. I now face the future with confidence, for I know that I have recovered completely, just as surely as if I had recovered completely from pneumonia or chickenpox or a broken leg instead of mental illness.
It is for that reason that I am telling my story, for I want the world to know that people like me who have returned from the half-world of mental oblivion are not forever contaminated. We have been sick. The best way to help us get well and stay well is to treat us like human beings—as I've been treated. We don't have to talk about our sickness in whispers or prowl about on the edge of society with our hands to our ears to block out the whispers of others. We have nothing to be ashamed of. All we want is to be understood by those who have never been where we have. There is no better therapy than understanding. I have received my share of that, for which I thank God every day of my life. But in order that I and others like me may be fully understood, I must tell my story from the beginning, for the source of my sickness goes far back beyond the day I blacked out in Sarasota.
I was born in Waterbury, Connecticut, on November 14, 1929. My parents were already well along in middle age. I had one brother, but, since he was nearly 20 years older than I, he belonged to another generation. He never was a factor in my life. He married while I was very young, and died a few years later. To all intents and purposes, I was brought up as an only child.
My dad was a house painter. When he worked, he made a good living, but he was idle much of the time. I don't remember his ever being very far ahead of the world financially. At the time I was born, the great depression of the thirties was about to begin, and Waterbury was terribly badly hit. There were few jobs for anyone in those days, and practically no demand whatever for house painters.
One of my first memories was of my dad coming into the house, setting a huge bundle on the kitchen table and saying, "Well, we can be thankful for one thing. At least, we can get the bag."
I didn't know it then, but I found out later that "the bag" was the only thing that stood between us and starvation. It was a handout of food, given to the unemployed by the city of Waterbury once a week. It consisted mostly of canned goods and dry groceries, a little meat and fish and a few vegetables. It was supposed to last a week, but my mom had to do a lot of stretching to make it go that far. I was too young to realize it, for I was only three or four then, but there were a lot of hours near the tag end of the week when I cried from sheer hunger.
We lived in the back part of a wooden building at 683 East Main Street, in the heart of a working-class district. My parents still live there, and whenever I go to visit them I feel a pang of nostalgia, for, whether I liked it or not, it was home to me for nearly twenty years. I knew poverty, unhappiness, fear, even terror there, but there were good times, too, times when I knew real contentment and enjoyed good companionship and was the object of deep affection. When I walk into my old room on the second floor—that's my dad's room now—I can stifle the bad and lose myself in happy recollections of the good. There on the walls are the pictures of sports teams I played on while I was growing up. I never tire of looking at them, picking out old teammates and thinking of them as they are today. There, all about the room, are some of the things I made in school—the two flower-pot holders, the sewing basket I made for Mom, the two nightstands, the little bookcase, the smoking stand I made for my dad. In spite of everything, my modern home, my loyal wife, my wonderful family, my success in baseball, my strides toward financial security, my complete happiness in the life I now lead, the little wave of homesickness stops me for a minute or two each time I visit the apartment in Waterbury.
It had a good back yard and enough room for us all, but it wasn't much otherwise. Two brothers who owned the building lived in the front part. One was a tailor, the other a barber. Their shops were side by side, facing East Main Street. The entrance to our apartment was on one side. We had the entire rear of the building. The sitting room was downstairs, along with the kitchen and the bathroom. We had a coal stove, an icebox, two set tubs, a table and some chairs in the kitchen. There was a divan in the sitting room, along with a dining-room set, consisting of a table and four chairs, although we rarely ate there. Upstairs were two bedrooms and a big storage closet. In winter, my room was always ice cold, but I didn't mind. I slept well, and never suffered from anything in the way of colds more serious than occasional sniffles. To this day, I sleep with my bedroom windows wide open, regardless of the temperature outside.
We had no running hot water. When I took a bath, my mom would heat water on the stove and pour it into the tub for me. I never had a hot-water shower until I was old enough to take one at the school gymnasium. I have never lost my appreciation for one either. When I take a hot shower today, I stand under it as long as possible, enjoying every drop as it pours down over my body. A shower was the height of luxury for so many years that, to my dying day, I'll never take one for granted.
The back yard, which ran the width of the house, was fairly deep, and enclosed by a wooden fence. There were trees along one side and a tool shed on the other. Behind the shed, we kept three or four trash cans. In spite of these obstacles, there was enough room back there for my father and me to play catch. He was rolling a ball at me while I was still an infant, and tossing one at me when I was old enough to stand on my feet. One of my earliest memories—I couldn't have been more than four years old—was standing in the yard behind the house, catching a rubber ball and lobbing it back to my dad. I learned how to catch and throw a ball before I learned the alphabet.
I loved to catch a ball. It gave me a big thrill to snag it out of the air, especially when I had to stretch or reach around one of the back-yard obstacles. I used to ask my father to throw the ball high and to every corner of the yard, and if he didn't happen to be home, I'd do it for myself. When he wasn't around, I even practiced catching a ball behind my back, although I didn't dare let him catch me at it. It was only a stunt, and he would say that stunts like that would serve no good purpose during a real baseball game.
Once, when I was in the first grade, after I had made a particularly hard catch in the back yard, I laughed and said to my dad, "This is fun!"
"Of course it's fun," he agreed.
"But catching a ball," I said. "That's real fun."
He stopped and looked at me for a moment. Then he said, slowly, "I don't want you thinking about fun. When you grow up, I want you to become a slugger like Jimmy Foxx. That's where the money is."
Jimmy Foxx was baseball's leading home-run hitter at the time. He was my father's favorite ballplayer, particularly since he had just been traded by the Philadelphia Athletics to the Boston Red Sox. The Red Sox were my father's favorite team.
There were times when I loved my father and times when whatever emotion I felt for him was anything but love. I respected him, as I do today, but I was afraid of him. Not a big man, he was stocky, with broad shoulders and a flat stomach, and he had the strength of a bull. When he was nice to me, he was as wonderful as any father could be. He joked with me and bought me ice cream and put his arm around me and sometimes even kissed me. When he was like that, I felt very close to him.
But when he was angry, he terrified me. He used to wear heavy shoes that tapered towards a point at the toe. When I was a little slow getting ready to run an errand, he would turn me around, let me go, then reach out with one foot and shove it in my direction, accompanying the gesture with a roaring, "Come on—get out!" If I didn't dodge fast enough, that sharp toe would land on my rump and I wouldn't be able to sit down for a week. When my dad was really angry, his sharp eyes would bore through me, his face and his gleaming bald head would redden and he would bellow at me in a voice that made the windows rattle and the pantry dishes jump. His voice was deep and raucous, and sometimes I could hear it in my sleep. I would do anything to avoid his anger. He set down my rules, and I tried hard not to disobey them, for I lived in fear of his wrath. I had to be home at five in the afternoon for supper and at seven-thirty in the evening for bed. When he wanted me, he whistled in a long, low, moaning whine. I got to dread that whistle, for it meant that time was short, and I rushed home the moment I heard it. There was a strapping waiting for me in case I was late.
My mom was gentle, sweet-faced and quiet. She had a soft, even voice, and when she was well she never raised it. When my father found fault with anything around the house, she let him roar himself out and then went about her business. At first, I used to think that his frequent outbursts of anger rolled off her back without leaving any effect, but later I learned better.
Whenever I got into trouble or did anything wrong, I went to my mother and told her everything.
"Do you want your dad to know?" she would ask.
"Does he have to know?" I'd reply.
Then we would talk it over. If it was obvious that he would find out sooner or later, I would agree to tell him myself. If there was a chance that we could keep it from him, she would agree not to say anything. There was nothing that I did wrong that my mom didn't know about. I loved her and trusted her, and she, in turn, showered me with affection.
I saw my first real baseball game when I was in kindergarten. There was an amateur league in Waterbury which played its games on Sundays at Hamilton Park, about a mile from my home. Overlooking the park was a high hill, which was generally known as "the mountain." You could see a ball game from there without paying your way into the park. My dad would take me over there, and we'd sit on the mountain and see the game.
"Watch closely," he said. "That's the only way you'll learn."
If I got restless or squirmed around, he would snap, "Quiet down and watch the ball game." But there was no question I could ask about the game that he wouldn't answer. He was impatient about a good many things, but never about my curiosity over baseball.
"You must learn baseball backwards and forwards," he told me. "The more you know, the better ballplayer you'll be."
I could tell what a batter should do in a given situation before I could write my name. By the time I was in the first grade, I was an ardent Red Sox fan. I listened to their games on the radio when I wasn't out playing ball, and I knew the names of everyone on the team. I grew up a Red Sox fan. It never occurred to me to cheer for anyone else, even though in Waterbury we were within radio range of the Braves, who were then also in Boston, the two New York teams, the Giants and the Yankees, and the Brooklyn Dodgers. My dad was strictly a Red Sox man. So was I.
When I was five years old, my parents entered me in the kindergarten of the Sacred Heart School, a parochial school operated by the Sacred Heart Church, which was on East Main Street, almost next door to my house. My father is a Protestant, but my mother, a devout Catholic, wanted me to be brought up in the Church, and my father had no objections.
I did not dislike school, although in common with all the other kids, I could think of a lot of things I'd rather do than go there. The nuns at Sacred Heart were gentle and understanding, and I could relax when I was with them. One of them became almost a second mother to me. Her name was Sister Margaret. She was my first-grade teacher.
The first time I ever had any direct contact with Sister Margaret was just before recess on my first day in her class. We were walking towards the school yard when I stepped out of line. Before I knew what was happening, she had swooped down on me and, gently pulling me by the ear, put me back where I belonged.
Later, while we were outside, she came over to me and said, softly, "You're Jimmy Piersall, aren't you?"
"Yes, Sister," I mumbled.
"I'm glad to see you, Jimmy. Your mother is my very dear friend."
"Thank you, Sister."
"You're a nice boy. And after this, you will keep in line, won't you?"
After a while, she began referring to me as "my Jimmy." If anyone asked for me, she would say, "My Jimmy's outside playing ball. I can hear his voice." Or, if I got into trouble and she heard about it, it would be, "That's too bad. I guess I'll have to go and pull my Jimmy's ear."
At first, she pulled my ear only when she was really displeased about something I did, but she never hurt me. As I grew older and we became closer, she began pulling my ear in jest, until it finally got to be a game with us. She does it now as a greeting whenever we meet.
I could talk to Sister Margaret the way I talked to my own mother. She knew my mother so very well and felt so close to her that we had our affection for Mom in common. By the time I was in the second grade, Sister Margaret developed into more than just a dear friend. She became the one stabilizing influence in my life, the only person I knew to whom I could pour out my problems and with whom I could relax completely. I came to love her as I loved my own mother because, in effect, that was exactly what she had to be to me.
Excerpted from Fear Strikes Out by Jim Piersall, Al Hirshberg. Copyright © 1999 University of Nebraska Press. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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